States, counties, cities vote on $250 billion in transportation initiatives
Besides choosing candidates Tuesday, voters nationwide will face at least 232 city, county and state ballot initiatives to decide whether to raise a potential $250 billion for road and bridge construction.
One of the smallest measures is a $5,308-a-year property-tax measure for road maintenance in Williamsburg, Colo. That is one of 11 proposals in Colorado.
California has the most at stake, with 26 initiatives worth more than a combined $140 billion over 40 years. Michigan has a slew of more than 50 proposals for property taxes among its villages, townships, cities and counties.
“This really is a record year in terms of the number of initiatives,” said Alison Premo Black, who tabulated the measures as chief economist for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), a trade group for contractors and officials. “It seems like every little town in Michigan has an initiative.”
The local Michigan proposals come after 80% of voters rejected a statewide ballot measure in May 2015 to raise taxes $2 billion per year that wouldn’t have all been dedicated to road repairs. The legislature later adopted a $1.2 billion per year package for road in November 2015.
This year’s state and local initiatives come after Congress refused to increase the federal gas tax in December 2015, while approving a $305 billion highway bill spanning five years. The federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon was set in 1993 and hasn’t kept pace with construction demands because of inflation and more fuel-efficient cars.
“I think the states have really been taking the reins because of inaction at the federal level,” said Michael Sargent, a research associate focused on transportation at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “States have increasingly been looking to Washington and realizing that the federal taxpayers are not going to come to the rescue.”
The lack of additional federal funding, combined with a loss of property-tax revenue after the 2008 recession, has spurred local ballot initiatives Tuesday, including at least 98 to raise property taxes, 58 for sales or income taxes and 26 for gas taxes.
“We’re seeing a growing trend where people are willing to vote in their state or local areas,” Black said.
So far, state lawmakers are seeing few repercussions. Eight states — Iowa, South Dakota, Utah, Idaho, Georgia, Nebraska, Washington and Michigan —approved a gas-tax increase in 2015. Six of those states had a Republican governor and Republican-majority legislature. But 98% of the lawmakers won their primaries, ARTBA found.
“Voters are willing to send politicians back,” Black said.
Advocates contend that residents see the benefits of local construction funding. Already this year, voters approved 75 transportation-funding initiatives out of 81 proposals nationwide.
“They do see those results directly,” Black said.
The largest of the transportation proposals would increase the sales tax in Los Angeles County by an estimated $120 billion over 40 years. Other sales-tax proposals would give San Diego County $18 billion over 40 years and Contra Costa County $2.86 billion over 30 years.
But those California proposals each need a two-thirds majority for adoption, so they might not maintain the 75% approval rate that ARTBA has tracked over the past decade.
“That might be a tall order this time,” Black said.